Barrington High Business Incubator program poised to spread
To say that the Business Incubator program at Barrington High School had a successful first year would be putting it lightly.
The architects of the class aimed to teach the tenets of entrepreneurship and business acumen to 16- and 17-year-olds by challenging them to form their own startup companies. And to further motivate the 125 students, the prize of $10,000 in startup money was promised to the idea for the most viable company with the most compelling pitch to investors.
The prize ended up being all that and more. After making their pitches in May, five student-run companies received a total of $80,000 in seed money from Barrington-area investors.
It was a result that not even the course's teacher saw coming.
"I don't think it could have ended any better," said Hagop Soulakian, who teaches all five sections of the course. "Eighty thousand dollars is a big number."
The program's success has drawn the attention of school districts from around the country. In June, representatives from districts in Illinois, Wisconsin, Colorado and California converged on Barrington for a presentation about the curriculum.
Incoming senior Scott Arnett, whose company FuntasTech was one of the five to receive funding, was one of the students selected to answer questions from the visitors. His fledgling company provides tech support and teaches computer classes to older adults.
"It was pretty cool to be able to brag about our experience to them," Scott said.
Spreading the good word about the curriculum won't end there. Soulakian will be making a presentation about the course in November at a national convention in Nashville.
"The curriculum is starting to resonate around the area and nationally," he said.
Michael Miles, an entrepreneur and investor, and Karl Freucht, an "intrapreneur" who creates new ideas within big businesses, worked together to come up with the idea for the business incubator program. Miles said they set out wanting to expose students to entrepreneurship at a young age.
"At most high schools in the country, the business curriculum is not as strong and relevant as it needs to be for people to go on to pursue business in college and the real world," Miles said.
They wanted to have students learn by doing, not by using a textbook. Their pitch to Barrington Area Unit School District 220 received a warm welcome.
The blending of the business and education worlds was a theme throughout the class from the beginning. When Miles and Freucht were putting the course together, they called business experts before they ever talked to teachers or college professors.
When they did talk to professors, they focused their questions on the latest entrepreneurship practices taught in higher education.
"These methods are being taught to adults at the master's level, at the graduate level," Miles said. "We're teaching it to 16-year-olds."
In addition to high-level entrepreneur philosophy, Barrington students also learn what Miles referred to as "intro to business" concepts like accounting, finance, human resources, marketing, sales and business law. The concepts in the class are taught in 25 modules over the fall and spring semesters.
Most of the modules feature people from the business world called coaches, who guest-teach on topics relating to their areas of expertise. They included the owner of Wool Street Bar and Grill in Barrington, who spoke about human resources, and an executive of Pandora Jewelry, who taught about marketing.
Each group of students working on a startup was paired with a mentor throughout the duration of the project. The mentors are local entrepreneurs who have either started a business, are in the process of starting one or are helping someone starting one, Soulakian said.
Robert Tracy, who will be a senior at Barrington High in the fall, said his group's mentor was a marketing genius. His group's company, Warrior Wipes, plans to produce and sell medical-grade disinfecting wipes to athletic teams.
Scott, from FuntasTech, said his group's mentor helped them with their pitch to investors by teaching them advanced business concepts and terms to use.
"He knew what the investors would be looking for," Scott said. "We saw that when we used those terms he had taught us, the investors looked impressed."
Miles said the mentors enjoyed their time working with the students and many will be back next year.
Perhaps no one person better represents the mixing of business and education than the course's teacher, Soulakian.
Soulakian spent much of his adult life in the business world, working at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange as a trader. He took his first education class at Roosevelt University in the fall of 2010 and earned his teacher's certificate in 2012.
Though he had other offers, Soulakian chose Barrington High because of the incubator program. He started at the beginning of 2013, teaching typical business courses the first semester while the plan for the new program was being finalized.
"It's amazing the amount of comfort I had when I walked in the door," he added. "Two weeks in and people were calling me 'The Mayor.'"
When they aren't calling him the mayor, his students refer to him by his nickname, "Hags." The informality underscores the culture of the incubator class and his relationship with the 125 students he taught in its first year.
The course itself is taught in a classroom designed to feel more like a Silicon Valley office than a suburban high school. The room is stocked with state-of-the-art technology to aid students in their collaborations.
Student Cole Walsh, also of Warrior Wipes, said one of the best parts of the classroom is the Apple TVs on each table, which help the groups stay on the same page. Also, Cole said teachers used the televisions to teach the class like other teachers in other classrooms would use projection screens.
"It's everywhere around the room, so if you lose focus and look away there's another one over there."
Students can even write on the walls, which are covered in a material called white glass, to better communicate their ideas.
Students whose companies didn't end up with funding have still learned invaluable lessons and are six or seven years ahead of their future peers in the business world, Soulakian said.
"A few professors have emailed and asked to have my students go visit their college," he said.
Looking to next year, Miles said the curriculum is constantly evolving to keep on top of changes in entrepreneurship and to more effectively teach core business concepts. "We're releasing a version of the curriculum that we call 2.0," he said.
Soulakian said they are expecting every seat in each of the sections to be occupied next year. There also will be a course just for the students who had their project funded in May.
Miles said the future is bright for the business incubator program, and it will only get better.
"There's just more lives you can touch," he said.
Funded student companiesFMB TechnologyWebsite: fmbtechnology.com
Warrior WipesWebsite: warriorwipes.com
The Study ProjectWebsite: Under development